Fears of Oil Soaked Beaches Drive Vacationers Away

Last summer, Joanna Elkins' phone never seemed to stop ringing with vacationers eager to stay in one of her three condos in Panama City and Okaloosa Island, Fla.

This summer, the phone has been almost silent.

"We're just not getting the calls," Elkins said.

Elkins attributes the decline to people's fears that Florida's beaches have been smeared with oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. Panama City Beach has not been hit by the oil yet, but vacationers have already been scared away.

"Last year, I rented all three of the beachfront condos weekly," she said. "Every week, filled up completely."

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She has stopped renting two of her three condos altogether and the third property is only booked for two weeks out of the entire summer. When compared to her rental calendar from last year, Elkins described the contrast as "disturbing."

She has lowered the price of a one-week stay in her penthouse condominium from $1,500 a week to less than $900. Still, no one is calling.

Elkins and her husband face the prospect of losing tens of thousands of dollars of income if rentals don't pick up during what is normally the busiest rental period of the year.

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"It's that income that carries us the rest of the year because we don't get enough in the off season," she said. "We don't know what we're going to do."

The BP oil spill is not only hurting property owners.

"It affects everybody, and it's devastating," Elkins said. "It affects people who make their money from tourism, from restaurants, the people who rent out jet skis and umbrellas."

Jack Norris, president of Mississippi's Gulf Coast Business Council, recently met with business owners from the region to try to understand the impact of the oil spill on the economy there. Oil has yet to wash ashore, but many potential visitors from outside the region have the impression that the beaches have been affected.

"While the perception of the general public outside of this region is that we have oil on our beaches, the reality is we don't right now," he said. "This perception alone is having a negative impact on our economy, particularly our tourism and seafood industries."

Even those who know that most beaches are unharmed question if that will still be the case a week or month from now, when they actually arrive for their vacation.

Travel review site TripAdvisor said that it has noticed web traffic to reviews of Gulf Coast resorts fall. The number of page views for Biloxi, Mississippi, is down 25 percent; Pensacola, Florida, 40 percent; and Fort Myers, Florida, 19 percent.

Emerald Coast RV Beach Resort, also in Panama City, said it has seen numerous cancelations because of the spill. Many vacationers are saying they just don't want to take a chance.

"Unfortunately, we are being impacted by the oil spill not because of oil on our beaches, but rather due to the impression many of our visitors have based on media coverage they are hearing," said Lyle Hartka, owner of the RV Park. "Panama City Beach still has white sugar sand beaches that are free from oil. Trying to convey that reality to potential guests is difficult when they are hearing the worst."

It's the same message over and over again from hotel owners, restaurateurs and local tourism agencies.

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